After 30 years of endangered listing for Chinook, it’s time to bring back the Kings of Idaho
Thirty years after they were listed on the endangered species list, the future of our salmon remains murky, writes guest columnist Mitch Cutter.
Just last month, iconic Snake River spring and summer Chinook salmon passed a grim milestone – 30 years on the endangered species list. Their 1992 listing came after more than a century of habitat degradation, overharvest and dam construction pushed these fish to the edge of extinction. (Courtesy of the Idaho Conservation League)
Idaho’s wild salmon and steelhead are in trouble — and have been for quite some time.
Just last month, iconic Snake River spring and summer Chinook salmon passed a grim milestone – 30 years on the endangered species list. Their 1992 listing came after more than a century of habitat degradation, overharvest and dam construction pushed these fish to the edge of extinction. Thirty years later, their future remains murky.
Historically, the Columbia River Basin was one of the most productive Chinook salmon fisheries in the world. As part of this watershed, the Snake River once produced almost half of the basin’s Chinook, which flourished in the high mountain streams of central Idaho. The Clearwater and Salmon river systems remain the best Chinook salmon habitat anywhere in the lower 48 states.
These massive fish – sometimes called “King salmon” – are true kings for the environment. Entire ecosystems and industries are centered on these fish. In their migration from the ocean, Chinook salmon deliver marine-derived nutrients to streams nearly 1,000 miles from the Pacific Ocean. More than 130 distinct species depend on this natural conveyor belt – trees themselves are made of salmon.
Anglers, fishing guides and outfitters have built family businesses and legacies gathering Chinook. Into the 1960s, Idaho opened long seasons for wild Chinook fishing, and people flocked to the Salmon River for their shot at a “June hog” – the particularly massive wild summer Chinook that ranged into Idaho in early summer each year. Some of these fish measured more than 4 feet long and weighed more than 75 pounds – hardy enough for the long migration back to Idaho. These Chinook migrate higher (6,000 feet) than any others in the world.
The June hogs have since disappeared, victims of the species’ decline. Spring and summer Chinook in the Snake River are now less than half that size, on average, and the populations remain close to disappearing.
In the 30 years since listing under Endangered Species Act, significant progress toward recovery has not been made. In 1992, 12,673 wild spring/summer Chinook returned to Lower Granite Dam, the last dam on the lower Snake River. In 2021, only 6,556 wild fish returned, marking a 48% decline. Over the last five years, wild Chinook have returned at a rate that’s just 3.8% of the state’s goal for recovery. The work of the past 30 years has not worked. It’s time for a different strategy.
Billions of dollars have been invested in restoring salmon habitat here in Idaho, but achieving the full potential of these projects depends on getting more fish safely back to our rivers. That means making big changes downstream, and breaching the four lower Snake River dams. Restoring a free-flowing Snake River would ‘unlock’ the vast potential of Idaho’s salmon stronghold, and put Chinook on a real pathway to abundance. The time has come to bring back the Kings of Idaho.
Let Northwest leaders know that we need to change course and pursue meaningful action to restore Snake River Chinook.
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